DoomBringer

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Part Four: Chapter 48

The Mardothan soldier shrieked uncontrollably as he sat clutching the stump that’d just been freed of his right leg: the result of an unfortunate impact with a scythed chariot blade as the Spider came plowing through enemy lines. A jet of crimson blood shot from between his fingers as he lost consciousness—then his companions were leaping over his prone body in their haste to catch and engage the sorceress.

Others had been fleeing before Saedus’ wheeled onslaught, but now—as the allied voices from behind called for a rally—most of them turned and stood their ground. Nevertheless, Valreecius saw the wall of spears forming…and at the last instant he yanked the reins to pull the horses aside, avoiding a direct charge that would’ve left the animals skewered and the car overturned. Spinning axle blades struck again as the chariot passed close to the Mardothan formation, conjuring horrid screams from new amputees as the driver veered to survey the plain for his next lane of attack.

“Run them all down!” cried the witch, burying her trident in the unprotected neck of another hapless foe and wrenching it out as she sped past him. Her eyes were bright and feral in her bloodlust, outshining even the gems on her diadem that sparkled in the sunlight.

As the horses began to slow in their circuit, a nearby Mardothan captain saw his opening and shouted for a coordinated strike. A hail of missiles rained down on the chariot just as Valreecius was bringing it about; yet—miraculously, in the eyes of the assailants—no fleshy mark was struck. Not the witch. Not the driver. Not even the horses.

Four of Saedus’ banshees were with her, blinking in and out of vision about the chariot like rapidly forming and dissipating clouds—and they’d deflected every single threatening shaft.

But the attackers hadn’t waited to see if their aims would prove true. They had rushed forward immediately after hurling their projectiles, most committed to the charge before the marvel had fully registered in their brains. These brave souls drew their swords and mouthed words to their gods as they came on: some praying for a chance at unending glory, some merely begging to live out the day. Others with slower starts or weaker resolves thought it best to disengage instead, and these promptly turned tail and ran.

Weaponless Valreecius hissed like a warning viper as the Mardothans leapt at him, frantically whipping the reins in an attempt to get his mistress clear of danger. The banshees swooped in to spare him and the horses, flinging aside and mentally incapacitating all who came within striking range—yet the chariot was going nowhere. The horses could do nothing but rear and kick at the enemy forming up again before them. And with all four banshees occupied at front and left flank, the queen herself was left temporarily exposed.

“Die!” she squealed with each thrust or blow as the fools waded in, seeming not to notice that her guardians had abandoned her. The augmented speed and strength that Saedus’ potion had granted her was too much for these common soldiers to contend with—and either one by one or in pairs they fell before the chariot, quickly dispatched by the trident’s prongs or else brutally beaten down by its shaft. Meanwhile, however, one clever warrior had come up behind the car unseen, readying to make good on a clear shot at the witch’s lightly-armored back. Grinning, he raised his spear…

…and screamed in agony as his entire body suddenly erupted in flames, his face melting away as he raked at it with char-blackened hands.

Poltoros lowered the tyberwood staff and kicked his steed forward, covering the remaining distance to his mistress; and behind him poured in a band of imps brandishing their hatchets and bucklers with cruel intentions, eager to finish off the remaining Mardothans and strip them clean. Now even the most stalwart foes had seen enough—and a moment later the immediate vicinity of the chariot was devoid of all but Saedus’ minions…and fallen corpses.

“You lag behind, servant,” was all that Saedus said to the lich as he reined in beside her. Then, still staring at Poltoros, she addressed the moon steward next: “Valreecius! Find more of these desert rats for me to slay!” But when no answer came to this—neither in the form of speech nor simply the horses being whipped into motion—the sorceress turned her head to her driver, opening her mouth to chastise him as well. Yet what she saw then gave her pause. Her fifth banshee, Seela, had returned and materialized before the steward.

“Speak!” she yelled at the hovering gray figure.

Your son Dragan has revealed himself on the battlefield, and G’nilbor is slain! Your enemies have been rallied—and now they push forward, seeking you, leaving destruction in their wake…

Saedus screamed in rage at the tidings, her arm flailing out to backhand the dust that was Seela’s body. The banshee winked out of existence as her mistress’ limb passed through her, only to re-form in a spot just out of reach: unfazed by the violence, calmly awaiting instruction.

“I knew he’d fail me!” the witch spoke of the defeated ghoul, beginning to compose herself. “Yet Dragan’s here…just as I divined.” A wicked grin came to her lips. “The DoomBringer’s day is done! Seela—guide us to him. I’ll deal with him myself!”

---

The circle of Domalin soldiers exchanged nervous glances as they timed their constricting attack, spears extended before them like spokes seeking the hub of a wheel. All around this band of six, a heated contest between their company and the advancing Sinian detachment was constantly threatening to wash in and foil their maneuver; yet they paid no heed to any danger from behind. Their sole focus was this deadly adversary they’d managed to single out and were now warily approaching. Apparently they’d recognized Dragan on sight from his earlier days spent in Rardonydd—or else they’d just witnessed the hero make short work of some number of their brethren.

Likely it was both.

The tension that was nearly paralyzing to these six men hadn’t infected the GrimHelm, however. Although Dragan still wore the frown of mixed sorrow and rage that’d transfixed itself on his face with Fedrin’s death, for the moment his raw fury lay dormant. The swift revenge he’d dealt to Rae’s slayer had taken some of it out of him, filling the void left behind with a renewed feeling of calm confidence in his prowess: a feeling he’d not enjoyed since the days before his breastplate’s worth had been brought into question. Yet no longer could there be any doubt. As surely as he’d sworn Erroth to be wrong when Astelidus’ blade snapped upon the armor’s collar, he was now absolutely convinced otherwise. I am what the Kings proclaimed me to be. All that…and more. The power lies within me!

He was in his element now, after all, reveling in the carnage. The battlefield: his only true home. No matter what land he roamed in…no matter whether his reputation or deeds there caused him to be scorned or shunned…War and Death were always waiting for him with open arms, longing for his return. His earthly mother hadn’t shown him love—or it’d proved but a lie for her gain. Yet the blade in his hand loved him unconditionally. Thus he’d return that love, gorging it with the blood it so dearly craved.

Caught up in this emotion, Saedus’ son began to casually twirl his sword in an easy stance. The corner of his lip turned up in a smirk, and a wink was ready in his eye as he slowly revolved to scan his assailants’ troubled faces. So relaxed did he appear under their pressure, in fact, that one might’ve assumed he were preparing to instruct some greenhorn retainer rather than take on half a dozen capable veterans. They were almost on him now: at the point where they’d have no choice but to engage or else to break and flee. But just then a succession of urgent cries pierced the din: “The witch! She comes! The witch draws near!”

Dragan’s smirk vanished instantly—and his sport with the surrounding men ended with it, forgotten even as he rushed them without warning. Leaping forth with blinding quickness, he barely avoided impaling himself on the nearest shaft as he spun around its point, slashing at the wielder’s neck with his sword while simultaneously stripping the offending spear from the doomed warrior’s grasp. And just like that he was free of the circle and dashing to intercept his mother’s approaching chariot with a weapon in each hand, swiftly dodging or dispatching anyone blocking his path.

Many of the Sinians called out to Dragan as he sped away, eager to continue following their resurrected champion—even on into the dark heart of the contest where their chances of survival were slim at best. Yet the DoomBringer paid them no mind. The appearance of his mother had his blood boiling again, and he had neither eyes nor ears for anyone but her. Thus brazenly he pressed forward, far outstripping those who might aid him should he become overwhelmed.

Yet Saedus had done the same. Scores of imps and goblins gushed in behind her, running over one another and howling and foaming at their mouths in their effort to catch up with the careering chariot—but even under the lash their labors were futile.

There! shouted Seela into the witch’s mind, her wispy arm extended with one finger pointing directly at Dragan’s onrushing form. The Spider’s sadistic smile grew even wider as she fixed her gaze on the prize, and Valreecius began at once to set the chariot in line for a direct charge. But scarcely had he pulled the reins when Saedus’ left arm shot out across his chest to slow him. Her eyes were still locked on her son, but her expression was now dramatically altered from that of a moment before. Apparently she’d just seen something in the hero to give her pause—something she’d not seen in him before—and the resulting dread had swept over her so suddenly and unexpectedly that she was unable to suppress a look of fear and doubt.

“Stop, Dragan!” she cried, thrusting out a warding palm. “Speak with me!”

But it was too late for that. The GrimHelm hadn’t faltered for an instant, and thus the chariot was still racing forward when he joined with it. Sidestepping an attack from Seela to come at the horses, he severed the closest beast’s throat with a backhand swipe of his sword—then hurled himself straight at the car, putting the spear in his other hand clean through the driver’s chest before rolling free of the impending wreckage. And narrowly did he avoid the wheel’s rotating blade in the process.

Valreecius’ mouth flew open in shock as he felt the shaft enter his body, and he dropped the reins to grasp at it just as the horses went down before his eyes. The chariot followed suit an instant later, thrown up in the air to come crashing down hard sideways—then flipping over and over again before finally skidding to a halt, the earth ripped cruelly asunder at each impact point along its path.

Saedus had leapt from the chariot as soon as it went airborne, following her son’s lead. But Valreecius was not so fortunate. The ruin of his skewered body lay trapped beneath the overturned car. An arm could be seen poking out of one side—but the limb was motionless and bent at an odd angle, with a white bone jutting out from the pale skin.

“You bastard!" screamed Saedus, raising her weapon in one hand as she felt around her head with the other. She’d lost the Diadem in her plunge from the car. “Look what you’ve done!”

Mother and son had risen together but stood at least ten paces apart, for the moment content with staring at one another. All about them the battle raged on; yet the soldiers in this stretch of field had been present long before the estranged pair appeared and were locked in their own desperate mortal conflicts, having no desire to interfere in a duel of demigods. And so they gave the area about the chariot’s path a wide berth.

As his mother’s enraged voice fell upon him, Dragan gripped his blade’s hilt tight and fell into a ready stance. A burst of wind streamed by, blowing strands of dark brown hair across his face. “I’m not done yet, bitch! You dreamt of this day from the start, didn’t you? Why wait so long to be rid of me?”

"Bitch?" the Spider roared back, murder gleaming in her eyes. Suddenly five gray figures took shape in the air about her, bristling like rabid hounds at the end of intangible leashes. “You’ve grown out of hand, child. But in the end you’ll learn your place!” Leveling her trident on the prey, she addressed her pets next: “Bind him!”

Dragan had launched himself forward again while these last words were still in Saedus’ mouth, and now he reared back to hurl his sword at her chest before the banshees could converge on him. Yet as soon as the weapon left his hand it was deflected by a phantasm—and the blade soared harmlessly past the witch to strike nothing but earth.

Seela was first to connect with the GrimHelm, injecting her horrific wail into his skull like a burning hot lance. The sting of it caused Dragan to stumble just as a second and a third spirit joined in—then he went down on his knees. With eyes closed and teeth gritted, he fought to suppress a howl of agony as his hands wrenched up clods of grass and earth before him.

Saedus had wisely chosen to hold back her remaining two bodyguards, not wishing to unnecessarily expose herself to errant darts or would-be heroes from the throng about her. Yet as she watched the trio of parasites dance around their crippled host, her earlier fear suddenly redoubled. They were moving faster and faster now, swarming the human…their agitation rising as he struggled against their control. Then Dragan’s eyes opened—and as the blue irises locked on his mother, they erupted into crimson infernos. He rose to one knee…

"Cast him down!" shrieked the witch.

The final pair of banshees rushed in to join their sisters; yet, to Saedus’ terror, the added burden appeared to have no effect. The DoomBringer’s resulting sharp intake of breath was drowned by the clamor, and this time he held his red gaze fixed on the Spider, barely wincing from the pain. He continued to rise…

…then suddenly groaned and fell, clamping his hands over his ears in a vain attempt to shut out the punishing screams.

“You see?” Saedus grinned wide, her panic subsiding. “Here’s your answer! Why rush to slay a lion I can so easily cow?” She began a casual stroll toward her son, as if she had all the time in the world to deal with the man. “But your life’s become more trouble now than it’s worth. Soon I’ll drink your blood, and your strength shall be my own!”

On his knees again, Dragan uncovered his ears and made a hoarse sound in his throat before doubling over in agony.

“What’s wrong, son?” Saedus laughed at his failed attempt to speak. Raising one hand, she caused the banshees’ dance to slow somewhat, visibly alleviating Dragan’s strain. “Come on…out with it!”

“Go ahead, Mother,” he gasped, meeting her gray eyes. “You may end my life…but I take the victory! I’ve lost all fear of you. Finally I know the truth, and I serve you no longer…”

"You know nothing!" She stood within striking range of him now, her trident threatening. “In undeath you’ll worship and fear me—fawning over every word I say! The truth is what I make it. You’ll have no choice but to serve me!”

“No matter what you do, you’ll never be one of us. I was next in line—not you. Another will come, and you’ll grovel in the dust before him!”

“Never!”

The Queen’s eyes flashed as she reared back to plunge her weapon straight through Dragan’s heart. But just before the prongs tasted leather and flesh, her attack came to an abrupt halt in midair—as if the trident had instead been thrust into a stone wall. Immediately sensing the interferer, Saedus cursed and whirled to face the lich…

Yet it wasn’t Poltoros alone who’d intruded on her moment of triumph. The steward was there, indeed…and it was his arcane magic that’d hindered her. But also standing nearby was a tall, dark-haired man with a naked blade in his hand and the recovered Diadem of the Gazer sitting his brow—and Dragan’s missing breastplate strapped to his torso.

Baeldrin.

Saedus had kept her mouth open to continue railing as she spun around, but instead the combined shock of her servant’s willfulness and the Domalin prince’s unexpected showing left her temporarily speechless. No doubt she was torn as to which one of them to set upon first.

“Surprised to see me?” offered Baeldrin, seizing advantage of her hesitation. He wore a strange look on his face: one caught somewhere between exhilaration and wariness. The former was a culmination of his plan to get to this very spot, whereas the latter was a more natural reaction to the odds stacked against him. He believed in the power he wielded…but here were two others with mastery far exceeding his own. Somehow he managed to hold a pretentious grin as his eyes darted back and forth between his sworn enemy and the questionable ally beside him—yet at the same time he was nervously gripping his hilt so tightly that his knuckles went white. His free hand was balled in a fist at his side.

It took only one glance at Poltoros, however, to see that the steward wasn’t well. Leaning on his tyberwood staff for support, his hooded and masked head drooping, the lich’s appearance was in sharp contrast to Saedus’ alert form.

“Taking after your poor dead father, Baeldrin?” returned the witch at last, a broad smile winning over her initial scowl. “Cowards all your lives, only to find some petty courage in your final moments? A surprise indeed!—and a welcome one at that. You’ve spared me the trouble of hunting you down!”

“As for you, old fool,” she turned next on Poltoros, not giving Baeldrin time to retort. “You dared stay my hand just now—but look what the strain of rebellion cost you! You know you can’t kill me yourself…so you’ve placed your bet with this dog? Look at him. Somehow he’s gotten his hands on Dragan’s armor, and he actually believes it will spare him my wrath? How pathetic!” Then, looking to Baeldrin: “Wearing that breastplate no more grants you Dragan’s power than donning that crown restores you to the throne! In a moment you’ll be dead…” She pointed her trident at him as she said this, then moved it in line with the lich next. “And you’ll wish you were! Begone from my sight, slave—and perhaps I’ll choose to ease your punishment.”

Poltoros made no move, however, quietly maintaining his slouch as if he’d not even heard her threat. Not so with Baeldrin. He was livid:

“You lie to save your skin, witch! You’d not have stopped Dragan if he still wore this armor! I’ll cut that silver tongue from your mouth and…”

Shouts and clangs from the nearby melee washed over the end of this taunt, followed by a wave of fiercely hacking and thrusting combatants that spilled into the gap between Saedus and her confronters. Nevertheless—with each afraid to lose their chance at the other in the sudden crowd—both she and Baeldrin leapt forth at once, bashing aside all bodies in the lane they were forging.

As soon as he was in range of her, the prince raised his sword as if to dare a straightforward charge, hoping to make it past Saedus’ counterattack to embed his blade deep in her skull. But it was only a ruse. As the trident darted out he jumped aside instead, shoving an adjacent off-balanced soldier before him. The expected result of this move was that the Spider’s fork would become trapped in Baeldrin’s meat shield, allowing him a brief window in which to cut her down…

But what he actually found was a prong sprouting from his own bicep. The speed of her thrust had been incredible.

Grunting in pain, Baeldrin opened his left hand and let the stone within fall to the ground. “Defend me!” he croaked, abruptly realizing his folly and mortal peril—and nearly fainted as Saedus wrenched her weapon free.

“There’s no one to save you, fool!” the witch laughed. “Join your sires in the abyss!”

Just as she’d planned to finish Dragan moments earlier, Saedus drew back once more to deliver a killing strike. Yet again her attempt was foiled. Baeldrin’s minion had heard its master’s command—and the gray particles of its shrieking, horribly distorted visage rapidly coalesced now within a foot of the Queen’s own face, threatening to consume her mind and soul.

"Ah!" she exclaimed in shock as her thrust went wide. Yet her surprise didn’t slide into fear. Immediately recovering, she took one step back—then barked an arcane phrase while reaching out with her left hand, forming a sign to seal the banishment of the Domalin’s offending phantasm.

Yet for the prince this distraction had proven long enough. Ignoring the pain in his punctured arm, he reacted instantly with the other. His sword flicked out to cut clean through the witch’s gesture, removing all four of her fingers with the sweep—and dropping to ground with these digits were three of the ornate rings she used to bind her banshees.

Exulting, Baeldrin planted his feet and followed with a backhand slice aimed at the screaming witch’s neck. He slung the blade out in a wide arc, committing every ounce of his adrenaline-fueled strength, aching to feel that beautiful tug of resistance midway that would secure his revenge. ”Domal is mine!" he cried with the attack, his words joining in a chorus with the whistling steel…

And missed his target entirely, losing his balance as the sorceress’ unnatural reflexes delivered her from harm’s way—and allowed her to smack her spinning weapon’s shaft into the base of Baeldrin’s skull on his way down.

Shoving her spurting hand against the leather under her right breast, Saedus grimaced in pain and rage. This time there’d be no shout. No boast. Only the orgasmic satisfaction of her trident drinking this stunned cur’s blood…

---

Suddenly Dragan felt a great weight lift from his mind. Like a gust of sweet spring air dispersing autumn leaves, three of Saedus’ pets had just departed him. They cackled as they sped off in separate paths over the heads of the soldiers that had spilled into this patch of field, rejoicing over their newly sundered bonds by spreading fear and panic through the ranks. The area about Saedus’ overturned chariot began to thin. Fleeing bodies could be seen radiating from its center as if someone had loosed a deadly plague in their midst.

Two spirits yet remained as leeches in the DoomBringer’s thoughts. But two weren’t enough. Leaping to his feet, Dragan was running forward again before he even knew the path, screaming his mother’s name to draw her out:

“Saedus!”

Then he saw her. The shaft of her trident was raised high in one hand, fork pointed down and ready to be plunged into his half-brother’s exposed neck.

"Mother!"

For an instant she paused to glare over her shoulder; then Dragan slammed into her body with the force of a colossus, breaking her grip on the trident and sending them both flying away from Baeldrin’s prone figure. Even before they landed, their struggle was underway. Dragan with arms constricting around her torso, squeezing the air from her lungs, threatening to crack her ribs and send the shards knifing into her guts. Saedus with her left arm pinned to her chest where she’d been holding it…but with her right hand free to snake up to his neck and crush his throat.

"Die!" she shouted once more as her nails sank deep into her son’s flesh; yet the note had fallen now from its earlier height of ecstasy to a pained, guttural cry of desperation. Nevertheless, her attack was succeeding. Unable to draw breath, Dragan was forced to relinquish his own hold, darting both hands to her wrist in an effort to fend off the viselike clamp.

Strong as her occult concoction had made her, though, the GrimHelm proved stronger: especially with his two limbs pitted against her one. A moment longer, and he would’ve pried the witch’s claw away, likely breaking what few fingers were left to her in the process. As it was, however, the digits had barely started to unfurl when Dragan faded again. Choking. His face turning red then purple as he fought to stay awake. The sparkle in Saedus’ eye returned as she prodded further into her son’s mind, stoking to life the spirits he’d relegated as naughty pupils to some lonely, dark corner. And in answer to their mistress’ call, her minions lashed out with renewed purpose and vigor, the pair wailing as if they were all five of the brood yet undone…

“Release him!” blasted a grating voice through the slits of a silver mask: and up stumbled Poltoros behind his words, staff raised before him one last time. A final spell, then, to redeem the foolish choices of his past. To spare a man he’d once treated as a son.

His command had an immediate effect. The remaining banshees were out in a flash, appearing as two storm clouds hovering above Dragan’s prostrate body; then, spinning into twisting whirlwinds, they flew at their summoner and were sucked into his skull. Pressing both hands to the red cloth covering his ears, the lich groaned as his staff dropped to the ground. His knees buckled…and he fell face forward, limbs sprawled atop the tyberwood in the grass.

The witch’s face turned pure ivory as she trained it on that crumpled mound. Her mouth began to open in disbelief…but instead curled up midway into a tight grimace of pain—then into a wide, shrieking maw of agony—as the bones in her forearm suddenly snapped with two sickening pops.

The GrimHelm’s strength had returned twofold. Still grasping Saedus by the broken limb, his mind cleared now of all daemons, he drew a shuddering breath and proceeded to manhandle her more. Rolling her over with ease, he mounted his mother’s chest and rained an elbow down on her face, bursting her nose in a shower of blood. Instantly she went limp, head hitting earth and staying put. The sign of Dragan’s victory. She had nothing left to defend her but words.

“O mighty DoomBringer,” she spoke, hardly above a whisper, then followed it with a ragged breath through her mouth. “Saved by his guardian yet again…”

Dragan had to lean in to hear her over the din; and as he did so, cocking his head slightly to the left, he caught the image of a man approaching with a glint of drawn steel dangling from one side. There was no need to turn further. No need to look his half-brother in the face. He knew what he’d find in those deep blue eyes…and knew that if Baeldrin wanted his life as well as his mother’s, the blow would’ve come already. No…the prince halted a few strides off instead, silently awaiting his turn like a runner anticipating a baton: content to let Saedus speak parting words to her son, yet standing vigil to ensure those words would indeed be her last.

If any gaze had been fixed on Baeldrin at that moment, it would’ve noted him struggling to fight off a swoon. His legs weren’t quite beneath him yet, and his sword arm was crossed over his chest as he pressed the weapon’s hilt against the hole in his left bicep. Saedus didn’t appear aware of his presence, however.

“Have you forgotten who fed and clothed you, son?” she continued, staring up at Dragan’s face. “Who succored you all your days? Without me you’d have no feared titles…”

“Without you I’d be free of disgrace! Free of the bloodstained hands I earned through believing your lies! No. Those words fall on deaf ears. I might not have won a great name, but maybe I’d have a real home and family instead. A father I’d have known.”

“Your brother’s to blame for Acomalath!” And suddenly the witch surprised Dragan by rolling her head to look daggers at Baeldrin. She took another deep, crackling breath. “There he is! The fool who dared steal your armor! You hate him more than me. Slay him now! Take back the plate and crown, and together we can rule these lands side-by-side!”

“You still don’t see it,” Dragan shook his head in genuine sadness. “To what end? To win nothing but hatred from these nations you’d break with the sword? There’s no glory in the whip and shackles. No legends to be forged with nothing left to overcome. No longer will I be the child hiding behind your skirt, Mother. Today I choose my own path!” And with that, he pushed himself up and stood. “Farewell. Perhaps the Daemon will be kind.”

“No, son! Wait!” The Spider’s voice was filled with panic as Dragan turned from her to meet Baeldrin’s gaze.

The half-siblings exchanged no words: yet Baeldrin nodded as if in answer to a question posed. Then he stepped in to take Dragan’s place, grip tightening on the blade in hand.

“Coward!” the witch cried at her son’s back. “You’ve not the stomach to slay me yourself?”

But the DoomBringer was done with her. He barely even heard her shouts as he strode away. All that remained was the broken old man lying face-down before him. Before he could shed the final strip of skin from his former life and pass on into the new, he must say goodbye to the one who’d held the door open. If not for Poltoros, he’d be dead thrice over—and he’d have no inkling of what a true parent should be.

More desperate shouts from his mother hit him in the back and slid futilely to the ground: “Dragan! Protect me!”

He knew time was against him. Any moment now Baeldrin would bring an end to the scourge of these lands—and as Saedus’ spirit fled to the netherworld, she’d pull her stewards’ souls down with her. Kneeling, he rolled the lich’s body over and stripped off both mask and hood, running a supporting hand behind Poltoros’ head so they could look level at one another. The blaze in Dragan’s eyes had since died and been replaced by their native blue, but the orbs staring back at him remained black.

“Dragan?” scraped the lich’s voice. He was clearly exhausted. Disoriented. “Where is she?”

"Shhh…listen to me. She’s fallen! You’re almost free…”

Poltoros smiled as the words slowly registered in his thoughts. “At last! I’ve waited so long…”

“You rescued me…” Dragan glanced over his shoulder. Baeldrin knelt over Saedus now with his blade held to her throat, apparently finished with whatever it was he needed to say to her. But Dragan wouldn’t interfere to buy more time. The Prince of Domal had his own score to settle.

“No, son…”

Dragan whipped his face back to his old tutor and friend. The man’s papery eyelids were shut now, but his smile had widened further.

“You delivered yourself. All I did was…”

A stifled cry from behind them cut off Poltoros’ speech. Then he spoke no more. His mouth fell open, losing the grin…yet his eyes had reopened in his passing, and the black in them was fading fast. Soon they were clear as the day he was born.

Dragan gazed into those eyes a moment longer, recalling early memories of a shared past. Then he reached out and pulled them shut.

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